Beaufort News

Forrest Gump made this Beaufort bridge famous. An act of bravery led to its name

The shot fired 50 years ago still resonates, the one that killed a Beaufort officer and led South Carolina to name a landmark in his memory.

The man who pulled the trigger and the Highway Patrol officer he killed are long buried, but the Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge, the picturesque swing bridge over the Beaufort River, still attracts visitors and interest.

People regularly stop Richard V. Woods Jr. and his sister, Wendy, to share a memory of their father, a state trooper who was killed on duty in August 1969. The name on the Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge is how they connect with strangers.

Yes, the Beaufort bridge is named after my dad.

Yes, that’s the bridge Forrest Gump crossed while running coast to coast.

The iconic swing bridge was built in 1959, known then as the Lady’s Island bridge, and 12 years later was named for Richard Varn Woods. The 34-year-old state trooper died days after he was shot Aug. 15, 1969 by one of three burglars fleeing police.

The men had stolen items from a Beaufort home and led police on a chase before crashing their Ford sedan at the entrance to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

Woods’ death left Anne Hall Woods a widow and Wendy, then 8, and Richard, who was 4, without a father.

The son is now police chief in the town of Ridgeland, where his father grew up and is buried. Wendy — now Wendy Woods Wekenmann — always thought she might work in law enforcement but instead worked 33 years in Department of Defense schools and married a police officer.

Both still live with the checkered memories of their father’s death — and clear recollection of how the act and the ensuing decades of legal proceedings consumed their mother.

A home, a family, a burglary

In 1969, the Woods had just built a house on Harvey Road in the Waddell Gardens area. The three-bedroom ranch is where Wendy and Richard Jr. would grow up and Anne would live the rest of her life.

Richard Woods Sr. had been promoted to corporal with the highway patrol in June. After joining the Highway Patrol in 1960, he had been assigned first to Charleston and then Bluffton, where Woods received mail at P.O. Box 3.

And then it was on to Beaufort, where Ridgeland natives Richard and Anne decided to make their home.

The Beaufort Gazette headlines carried news of plans for the BASF chemical plant in Bluffton and preparations for the first Heritage Classic golf tournament on Hilton Head Island. A newspaper advertisement marked the opening of Beaufort Plaza shopping center “to serve the people in the area between Charleston and Savannah.”

Strom Thurmond, the state’s longtime U.S. senator,wrote op-eds in the newspaper, urging constituents to respect police and the U.S. flag.

On Friday afternoon, Aug. 15, 1969, Georgia natives Forrest Ward Phillips, Benjamin Kenneth Gore and Charles Roper Jr. pulled a Ford Fairlane into the carport at Joe Lawson’s Beaufort home, broke in and stole guns, bags of cash and a large safe holding a coin collection, according to newspaper reports and subsequent court filings. Lawson’s wife returned home with her children while the burglary was in progress, and the men fled.

A Beaufort County Sheriff’s deputy gave chase, and Cpl. Woods joined the pursuit after the men sped past his car parked on the side of Highway 21. The fleeing car crashed into another car at the Marine Air Station entrance.

Roper and Gore ran for the nearby woods. Phillips broke the window of a car with a family inside and forced a Marine from the driver’s seat at gunpoint. From the car Phillips fired a shot at Woods, who had gotten out of his patrol car, hitting him in the head..

Then Phillips drove north, later forcing the Marine, his wife and 17-month-old child from their car near Charleston.

Woods was taken to Beaufort Memorial Hospital and then flown to Charleston for surgery to remove a .38 caliber bullet from his head. He died Aug. 19.

His children have few memories of the day their father was shot. But Wendy remembers clearly her grandmother telling her that her father was gone.

“I got in the car,” she recalled, “and she looked over at me and she said ‘Wendy, your daddy’s gone to live with Jesus.’”

Gore and Roper were arrested not long after the shooting following a search that included law enforcement from all local and state jurisdictions. What the Gazette called “the most intensive manhunt in the history of Beaufort County” became a national search for the gunman Phillips.

A crime’s toll; a family’s grief, resolve

After her husband died, Anne Woods left his belongings as they were the day he went to work and didn’t come home, her son remembers.

His wallet, underwear and socks remained in place in his dresser. His uniforms hung in his closet.

Phillips, on the run for two months, was captured by FBI agents in October 1969 and extradited back to South Carolina, according to newspaper reports from the time. All three men were charged in Woods’ murder and received life sentences.

Anne’s life work became ensuring the men — Phillips especially — stayed in prison.

Automated phone calls from the prison system notified the family any time there was inmate movement.

Before parole hearings were conducted by teleconference, victims’ families had to travel to attend in person. Anne built a statewide network of people to gather thousands of signatures each time she needed to oppose parole for her husband’s killer.

At the hearings, Anne would insist on never being in the same room with Phillips, Wendy said. The S.C. Highway Patrol sent officers from each jurisdiction to line the walls during the proceedings.

Then Anne was diagnosed with cancer. In 2004, she was unable to attend one of the final parole hearings for Phillips before she died, so she sent Wendy in her place.

Anne died Aug. 16, 2004, the day after the 35th anniversary of her husband’s shooting. She is buried in a Ridgeland cemetery next to him.

Her father, also a highway patrolman, is buried in the same plot.

Phillips was never granted parole and died in prison in May 2008 at age 80.

Wendy received the news via an automated call early on a Sunday morning, Mother’s Day.

We’re calling to let you know that Forrest Ward Phillips, inmate deceased.

Sixteen months after Woods was gunned down, on Christmas Day 1970, S.C. trooper Jimmy Traylor was shot and killed. Traylor’s widow and Anne Woods became friends, and the families vacationed together for several years on Tybee Island.

With a throng of state and local dignitaries, the Traylors attended the ceremony in 1971 to dedicate the Richard. V. Woods Memorial Bridge.

A photo from that day shows Anne placing flowers at the memorial stone, with Wendy and Richard on either side.

What’s next for the bridge?

The bells chime like clockwork. Cars stop on the way to and from the Sea Islands, and the metal bridge swings open to allow tall boats to pass.

The Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge connecting downtown Beaufort to Lady’s Island is under scrutiny 60 years after opening. The Woods Bridge replaced a wooden crossing from the 1920s.

Beaufort County delegates introduced a bill in the Statehouse this spring, asking for a committee of state and local officials and community members to study the bridge, assess any needed repairs and offer recommendations on the anticipated lifespan and options for upgrading or replacing the bridge in the future.

The proposal passed the House of Representatives. It’s in a Senate transportation committee, to be taken up again next year.

“It’s simply letting the community have a seat at the table,” said state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort.

The structure is one of a few remaining swing bridges in the state and will become the last of its kind in Beaufort County when the quaint Harbor River Bridge is replaced with a 65-foot tall, fixed-span crossing, viewed as a safer alternative. Work on the replacement started this year, and the new bridge could be finished by 2021.

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said he has explored applying to recognize the Woods bridge as a national historic landmark, a process he has been told could cost about $20,000. He thinks the undertaking might make a good project for high school students.

Woods’ children believe the downtown bridge has staying power. The bridge adorns postcards and T-shirts and is the subject of endless interest from local photographers.

A framed photo of the bridge hangs above Chief Richard Woods’ desk at Ridgeland Police Department. A photo of the elder Woods sits on a bookshelf nearby.

His son hopes this anniversary marks the final time he has to talk about his father’s death and mother’s anguish. But he knows that any proposal to replace the bridge would drawn him back.

“It won’t be in our lifetime,” Richard Jr. said.

Wendy remembers a summer night as a teenager when the bridge operator allowed her and a friend to climb atop. They lay down and watched fireworks explode in the night sky over the Beaufort River.

“I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to be up there,” she said. “But who’s going to pass that up?”

After Hurricane Matthew in 2016, a Beaufort police officer called Wendy to tell her the monument to her father on the Lady’s Island side of the bridge had slipped into the marsh when part of the causeway eroded. He assured her the stone would be retrieved as soon as practical.

Still she cried at photos of the submerged memorial, as if vandals had desecrated a gravestone.